February 23, 2006

NY looks to turn Governors Island into city oasis

By Scott Malone

NEW YORK (Reuters) - With acres of greenery and a view of
the Manhattan skyline, Governors Island is an oasis of calm
just a few minutes from New York's teeming financial district.
But for most of the last 200 years, that oasis has been off
limits to all but military personnel.

But that may change as New York officials evaluate
proposals for the 172-acre island including building hotels, a
museum, schools, theaters and a link to connect the island to
Manhattan and Brooklyn.

"The island is nothing short of remarkable," said Ken
Fisher, chairman of the Governors Island Alliance, a watchdog
group pushing for redevelopment. "It's a very big piece of land
in a very congested city ... It can be a destination cultural
location, and can also serve as an economic development tool."

For most of New York's history, Governors Island was a
military installation. But the island's 225 buildings have been
largely vacant since the Coast Guard left in 1996. In 2003, the
U.S. government sold the island for $1 to a partnership
controlled by the New York city and state governments.

In February, that partnership, the Governors Island
Preservation and Education Corp., put out a formal call for
development proposals. About 100 parties have expressed
interest in submitting ideas, which are due by May 10.

The deed of sale requires more than half the island, 90
acres, to be used for the public benefit, through parks,
educational institutions or other amenities. It bans permanent
housing, gambling and private cars. Allowing time for
environmental review, development officials said it's likely
the first projects could break ground in 2008.

Development officials said they expect the cost of any
project to top $1 billion, most of which would be paid by
private developers. So far the city and state have allocated
$120 million to the island's upkeep.


Observers said any development on the island, a 10-minute
ferry ride from southern Manhattan and near the Statue of
Liberty, needs to capitalize on its physical isolation.

"That's a great advantage and a great liability," said
Jeremy Soffin, vice president of public affairs at the Regional
Plan Association, a not-for-profit group focused on development
in the New York area.

"The kind of uses that benefit from a little bit of
isolation -- hospitality, education, recreation, arts and
culture -- need to be the bulk of the program," Soffin said.

In an effort to jump-start development, New York Mayor
Michael Bloomberg has unveiled plans for one possible transport
solution -- a gondola designed by architect Santiago Calatrava,
connecting the island to Manhattan and Brooklyn.

But most development officials interviewed said the bulk of
people traveling to and from the island would go by water.

"The gondola idea is only one of the many that we will be
looking at. It's exciting, but it's only one idea," said
Charles Gargano, chairman of the Empire State Development
Corp., the state development agency. "Ferry service is ...
going to be very important."


The island is vacant much of the year for all but the
roughly 50 preservation workers who work there. But in recent
summers it's been open for visitors to its historic sites, as
well as the 2.2-mile (3.5-km) shore promenade, baseball field,
soccer pitch and other relics of its peak population of 3,500
Coast Guard personnel and families during the early 1990s.

Most development officials said they expect hotels to serve
as a cornerstone of any development plan. But to attract
visitors in a city that already has more than 70,000 hotel
rooms, activities will be key.

"The active recreation and events are going to be critical
to drawing people to the island," said Fisher, of the Governors
Island Alliance. "The more interactive it is, the more things
there are to do, the more likely it is to be successful."

One of the groups developing a plan is the New York Harbor
School, a 320-student public high school currently based in
Brooklyn, which wants to move to the island.

Another proposal is to build a theater in Castle Williams,
one of the three abandoned forts on the island. It would be
called the New Globe Theater, and take its inspiration from
Shakespeare's Globe theater in London.

The Savannah College of Art and Design, a school based in
Savannah, Georgia, is also planning to submit a proposal to
open a satellite campus on the island.

Given the high costs of any redevelopment and the reliance
on private financing, advocates' main concern is that private
investments not result in a loss of public access.

"The long term risk is that a developer will chip away at
the commitments to public access," said Fisher, of the
Governors Island Alliance.